In January 2016, Russell Domingo was a man under fire. South African cricket looked like it would keep on sliding down the drain after a host of big-name retirements and two big series losses. The coach was always at pains to stress that this was merely a transitional phase. Not everybody bought that. Now everybody is buying humble pie. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
“You guys think I’m stupid.”
It was late January 2016, South Africa had just lost a series at home to England and returned from an absolute mauling away against India, and coach Russell Domingo was clearly frustrated. He spat out those words as if they were acid. They bounced off the back off the room in the press centre and hung around in the air like a thick smog, suffocating everyone huffing under its cloud.
Domingo was gritting his teeth at the South African press – with whom he had grown increasingly agitated over the course of the season. The question of when exactly the team would be appointing a batting coach had cropped up yet again and the coach’s frustration, both with the nagging and with the situation, was palpable.
Batting had been the bane of South Africa’s existence since the start of the 2015-16 season. First they looked discombobulated on the spinning tracks in India and then they lost the plot against Stuart Broad in their own back yard. They were dismissed for under 200 eight times in 19 innings and everyone, including the coaching staff, had serious question marks over their heads.
“Stupid” is usually such a throwaway word and easy insult. At times, Domingo must have felt that word would come to define his tenure as national coach. On top of their batting woes in Tests, the team crashed out of the World T20 early and Domingo undoubtedly felt victimised and frustrated by the impossibly high standards South Africa holds its sporting teams to.
The coach, though, was at pains to stress that whatever was happening was just a transitional phase. Fans and the media, however, weren’t having it. It did not look like a usual transition of blips; far too often it looked like a botched operation that resulted in a bloodbath.
Fast forward a few months and Domingo was beaming on TV screens in living rooms across the country on Sunday morning, despite the fact that his team had just lost the third and final Test against Australia. That result paled in significance to what they had achieved before that – beaten Australia in a series for the third time on the trot, and convincingly so. No matter how mad Australia were, South Africa was just so much better. Even without talisman Dale Steyn – who broke down midway through the first Test – and star batsman AB de Villiers, the team overcame months of discontent and pressure and sealed a remarkable series win.
Coaching at the top level of sport is a funny business. When things are going well, the coaches don’t always get the credit they deserve. When things are going down the pan, though, coaches are the first ones to cop flak. Nowhere has this been more evident than with Domingo’s tenure.
When the side began to struggle, many had quickly forgotten that it was under Domingo’s tutelage that South Africa won a Test series in Sri Lanka for the first time in two decades, a one-day series in the same country for the first time ever and progressed past the knock-out stages of an ICC World Cup.
But neither South African sports fans nor Domingo had known loss for a long time. For much of his tenure with the national side, both as assistant and as head coach, the team was ranked number one in the world. Sure, there were heartbreaking moments in limited-overs cricket, but these are easily cancelled out by the success of the Test team. And, when all you’ve known is winning, losing will always be the hardest thing. And the manner in which the team lost was incredibly difficult to digest.
But Domingo is not stupid. In fact, quite the opposite. Frustrated as he might have been with the criticism, he knew what the team was lacking in terms of management and leadership. Appointing Neil McKenzie as batting coach was the first step towards redemption. Next was introspection. Amid rumours that he had lost the dressing room, Domingo had to take a more assertive approach while not brushing off the criticism levelled at him. After the side returned from the tri-series in the Caribbean, Domingo and the team had a frank discussion.
The players said what they wanted to say and, most important, the coaching staff listened. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Since that day, they’ve been brilliant. Russell has stepped his game up, he’s challenging people now, he’s challenging players to try and be better. I think that’s healthy,” Du Plessis said after South Africa completed a 5-0 whitewash over Australia in the recently-concluded ODI series on home soil.
Sometimes all it takes to set things in motion is a little conversation. But it also takes somebody willing to change. Domingo has never been one to hog the limelight. If he could never speak to the press and just play around with statistics instead, he probably would. These more passive personalities often struggle to adapt to international coaching, especially when the going gets tough, but it is to Domingo’s immense credit that he toughed it out and surrounded himself with people who complement his more laid-back approach.
Because the coach is not alone in this. Claude Henderson deserves credit for how he has nurtured the two rookie spinners. A doff of the cap should go to McKenzie’s work with the batsmen. Charl Langeveldt has proven that he can coach at the top level and has done a fine job with the bowlers. All while Adrian Birrell has shown that his time with Ireland was no fluke.
Du Plessis’s captaincy has brought a huge rejuvenation to the side and the hangover of the World Cup in 2015 and the unfortunate selection drama that went along with it seems to be completely exorcised. The team look more cohesive and happier. Their body language is more dominant and even when things like losing their main strike bowler hit, they never let their heads drop. Domingo and the team continued to rebuild some of the broken trust during the camp that preceded the series against New Zealand and by the time they headed Down Under, the team was as good as gold once again.
The challenges that lie ahead for Domingo and his lieutenants will test them all over again. Sri Lanka at home, particularly in Durban, has been a bit of a bogey for South Africa in recent years. And the tour to England in 2017 will, in all likelihood, be the benchmark of their transition.
Luckily, they don’t have a stupid coach to guide them through that. DM
Photo: Russell Domingo during the 2015 Castle Lager and Cricket South Africa Proteas SendOff at the SAB Sandton Offices, Johannesburg on the 26 January 2015 ©Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix